THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

2 posts from January 2021

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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08 January 2021

A virtual get-away, medieval style

In these dark days of January, we all dream of escape. Perhaps it's time for a virtual vacation, medieval style. Here are some options to choose from.

France

Paris is the ultimate city of romance and culture — a firm favourite of tourists. This miniature shows the River Seine and perhaps the Ile de la Cité with the Palais (now the Conciergerie) on the right. You are unlikely to meet armoured men there nowadays, though you may see some ‘gilets jaunes’.

A manuscript image of knights in armour blockading Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind

Knights in armour blockade Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind, in Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, 1270–1380 (Paris, 1380–1400): Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 135v

Or how about renting a chateau in the French countryside?

A manuscript image of the Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes

The Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes, in the Roman de la Rose (Bruges, c. 1500): Harley MS 4425, f. 39r

Italy

Tuscany has it all — rolling hills with stunning vistas, hilltop villages of luminous Tuscan stone, sunshine, art and wine — and Florence, beloved home-town of Dante Alighieri, pictured here flying over the landscape with Beatrice, in his vision of Paradise.

A manuscript image of Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice

Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice (Tuscany, c.1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 157r

Spain

Or how about a package holiday to sunny Spain? A Spanish trip should always include a ‘Costa’ as the sun is bound to shine and the nightlife is great. Do you prefer the Costa Blanca, Costa Brava or Costa del Sol? 

A manuscript image of the Sun with an angel and birds

The Sun with an angel and birds, in the Silos Apocalypse (Northern Spain, c. 1100): Add MS 11695, f. 197r

Portugal

Lisbon’s palaces, monasteries and its great location on the estuary of the River Tagus  make it a perfect place to spend a weekend. This detailed border image in a genealogy of the kings and queens of Portugal shows the major sites and the city, including the Jeronimos monastery (completed 1521) a little way up the coast. It was painted by the artist Antonio de Holanda, who was based in Lisbon.

A manuscript image of a genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour

A genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour (Lisbon, 1530–34): Add MS 12531, f. 7r 

Cyprus and the Greek Islands

Cyprus is perhaps the destination for foodies. The well-known medieval armchair traveller, Sir John Mandeville, ‘visited’ Cyprus, where he found various recreational activities including magnificent feasts. Some of the places seen by Mandeville were illustrated by a Bohemian artist.

A manuscript image of a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast

Recreation in Cyprus with, above, a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast, in an illustrated version of Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, early 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 5v

For those who wish to combine the sun and sea of the Greek Islands with a visit to a World Heritage Site, a visit to the island of Patmos is recommended. It was here that St John the Evangelist was exiled and had his vision of the Apocalypse. The Holy Monastery of the Apocalypse was built on the site of the cave where John heard the voice of God. Images of him writing the Book of Revelations on Patmos are usually found at the beginning of medieval Apocalypses.

John, on the island of Patmos, being visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat

John, on the island of Patmos, is visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat (Netherlands or Germany, c. 1400): Add MS 38121, f. 3v 

Sun, sand and sea

There are different types of holidays to choose from, some of them further afield, but for most people, a beach holiday is the most popular. Sadly, there are not many pictures of beaches in medieval manuscripts. However, we did find one in a 16th-century notebook of botanical watercolours of plant species and landscapes by the Italian botanist, Gherardo Cibo. The plant, Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed, is shown beside a long beach with fishermen carrying rods, but with no parasols or deckchairs in sight.

A manuscript image of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background

Illustration of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background (Italy, 1564–84):  Add MS 22332, f. 150r

And for those who enjoy swimming, please do remember your swimming trunks; it's advisable not to wear a crown. This image is from a collection of tales of famous women by Christine de Pizan, and it illustrates the story of Camilla from the Aeneid. King Metabus escapes across the river with his daughter after being dethroned by his enemies.

A manuscript image of the Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind

The Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind, in a Flemish translation of Cité des dames (Netherlands, 1475): Add MS 20698, f. 64v

Asia

For exploring Asia, Alexander the Great would be the best guide. With him, you could go diving, visit the trees of the Sun and Moon, and see exotic beasts in India.

A manuscript image of Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask

Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask, in Roman d’Alexandre (Rouen, 1444–45): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

A manuscript image of the trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander

The trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander, in Ystoire dou bon roi Alixandre (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 31v–32r

An African Safari

The ultimate destination for the adventure traveller is a safari to Africa. Here are some of the animals you might see if you are lucky – and some you might not!

A manuscript image of a leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal

A leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal, in a bestiary: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 7r

Staying at Home

For our British readers, if this is all too much and you prefer a staycation, there are some lovely places to visit in our own green and pleasant land.

A manuscript image of an English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships

An English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships, in Wavrin, Chroniques de la Grande Bretagne (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 24v

Don't forget that you can explore these and other manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site and on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

 

Chantry Westwell

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